Viewpoint: Max Headroom for President


As the air was rapidly escaping from Gary Hart's presidential balloon in May, liberal Washington Post columnist Mark Shields took Hart to task for letting down his headquarters staff, many of whom, he said, had "sacrificed" by giving up their jobs to join the campaign. The Post does have a proclivity of looking at politics from the perspective of a high school civics text, but even so, Shields's comment struck me as remarkably naive.

Could there possibly be any purpose in "sacrificing" for a Gary Hart other than the hope that this frontrunner would be the next president of the United States and therefore the source of jobs, power, and prestige? It seems unlikely. Hart, for all his idiosyncracies, was the archetype of the media-inspired ideological neuter. At the press conference where he made his petulant withdrawal statement, Hart called himself an "idealist" and urged his young supporters on to "public service and national service" because "the torch of idealism burns bright in your hearts."

But what kind of idealism directs young people to strive to become government bureaucrats? Gary Hart was pictured by the media (and himself) as a "crusader." But he was a crusader without a cause. The pictures of campaign staff workers tearfully offering condolences to one another reflected not the demise of an ideological movement but the cold recognition that they'd bet on a horse (the favorite, to boot) that was not going to win the race to cushy jobs in Washington.

Pardon me if my cynicism is showing, but as of this writing there are seven announced candidates seeking the Democratic nomination and five more giving "serious consideration" to throwing their hats in the ring. Seven hats, twelve hats, it doesn't make any difference. Pick a hat, any hat. They're all the same.

To be sure, the keen eye might spot some distinctions. Hart at least paid lip service to free trade. Jesse Jackson leads an all-black Rainbow Coalition. Richard Gephardt lusts after the shrinking labor union vote. Bruce Babbitt has set a record for early television advertising in Iowa. And so on.

But why split hairs? The distinctive characteristic of all these Democrats is their sameness. They are all liberals, but not leftists. They no longer use the phrase, but they are all advocates of industrial policy—the current euphemism being "competitiveness." They all believe taxes must be increased and that Ronald Reagan has cut the federal budget to the bone. And most importantly, they all eschew any association with political principles, which is to say, ideology. They are pragmatists and proud of it.

What this all adds up to is a lack of vision. It's hard to imagine any of the current crop of Democrats stirring the emotions of anyone other than special interests and their own staffs. And that strikes me as peculiar, because if there is anything the Democrats should have learned from their presidential debacles in 1980 and 1984, it is that a candidate who can project a sense of vision appeals to Americans more than one who cannot.

The great achievement of Ronald Reagan, in fact, was in making ideology once again respectable in American politics. He talked about liberty, about individual rights, about how the Founders established certain principles that need to be followed to maintain a free and prosperous society. And Americans responded—with enthusiasm. I have maintained for years that Reagan is a greatly underappreciated actor, and the question of how much of his stirring speeches he understood is debatable. Certainly, little or nothing has come out of his six-and-a-half years as president to indicate that he either understood or cared about the principles of which he so eloquently spoke.

Nevertheless, those principles did strike a responsive chord among the electorate. So why haven't the Democrats taken the hint? Good question. Here's an even better one: Why haven't the Republicans? Talk about eschewing principles. The three leading Republicans seeking the nomination are, of course, Vice President George Bush, Sen. Bob Dole, and Rep. Jack Kemp. When Bush tries to look forceful and sound like he really believes something, it's painful to behold.

As for Dole, at least he admits he has no principles. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview he made it clear that he disdains political philosophy and grates at the Reagan legacy that requires him to possess a vision for America. His interest, he said, is to "get things done" but, well, sure he had a vision, sort of. He then listed three federal welfare programs.

Kemp, who seems obsessed with attacking Peter Ferrara's plan to allow young people to opt out of Social Security (it's "antifamily"), has rather candidly made his peace with big government: "'Getting the government off the backs of the American people' will be no one's slogan in 1988," he told the Wall Street Journal recently. "I've never understood why conservatives positioned themselves against government."

The crisis in American politics is real. Political principles are passe; we've come to the New Age: Max Headroom for president. The panderers of pragmatism running for president today will do nothing to stem the tide of statism in America. They endorse the status quo—indeed, they embrace it. The problem is that the status quo is not a set of programs. It is a process. And that process is bound to devour our prosperity and extinguish our liberties.

Edward H. Crane is president of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.